Political Islam at a crossroads in Egypt

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The call to prayer quiets in the minaret as Mohammad Abbas, a street protester turned candidate for parliament, steps out of a decrepit elevator and hurries to his office. He’s still learning the art of politics but he can spin a sound bite better than most of his elders. Ask away:

Facebook activists?

“They sit in air-conditioned rooms but don’t touch real Egyptians.”

Young Islamists?

“Not yet strong enough to influence change.”

The Muslim Brotherhood?

His eyes narrow, the banter hushes.

Abbas joined the Brotherhood, the Arab world’s largest Islamic movement, when he was in college. But the group that brought the 27-year-old closer to God and honed his social conscience booted Abbas out in July when he made clear that his ambitions for a new Egypt were much different from those of his mentors.

The Brotherhood’s moderate Freedom and Justice Party and its more conservative Islamic allies are likely to win big in parliamentary elections Monday; no other organizations are as disciplined or as connected to the masses. But the Brotherhood’s unity, which buttressed it for decades against bans and repression by Hosni Mubarak’s police state, is splintering as both young and established voices break away.


With about 6,000 candidates running for 498 seats, the elections are a crucial test for the Arab world’s most populous nation. The outcome, along with a presidential election scheduled for next year, will reveal whether Egypt emerges as a democratic inspiration in a region clamoring for change or slips back into a military-dominated autocracy where only the faces and illicit bank accounts have changed.

Abbas, who has shaved his beard in a symbolic break with the Brotherhood, joined with about 20 other former members to found the Current Party, a coalition of activists trying to keep alive the spirit that emboldened Egyptians during the uprising that overthrew Mubarak in February. It’s a vision of Egypt that is more tolerant and secular than the political ideology of the Brotherhood, which has turned mosques into campaign stops and is expected to seek a hardening of religious lines in daily life.

Drawing heavily from the educated and the middle class, the Brotherhood appears at once coy and inept at revealing what its brand of political Islam exactly is. Secularists allege the group is masking a more radical agenda than its Freedom and Justice Party promotes. The organization’s members often contradict themselves and at times operate with an opaque aloofness that comes from years of not caring about projecting media-friendly images.

The Brotherhood believes that this is its moment. And the chants of “Islam is the light, the Koran is the constitution” at a demonstration days ago in Tahrir Square left little doubt the organization wants Egypt’s new constitution and its identity indelibly stamped with sharia, or Islamic law.

Breakaway members such as Abbas are taking a “religiously unacceptable” path, says Zeinab Mohamed Kamel, a female member of the Brotherhood involved in preaching programs.

“It is the duty of every Muslim to vote for a group or a party that will make sure sharia law prevails,” she says. “It is forbidden to separate religion from politics.”

The Brotherhood is expected to win as much as 30% of the seats in parliament, but its political zeal has drawn criticism. The organization has so far not endorsed the protests in Tahrir Square, fearing that the chaos could derail Monday’s elections, and the strategy appears to have miscalculated public sentiment. Protesters blame the group for cooperating with Egypt’s military rulers to advance its ambitions at the expense of a new rebellion against the generals — a movement that Abbas has joined.

As a new political Islam emerges from the “Arab Spring,” religious parties, including some that receive funding and support from Wahabi fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia, are on the rise against secular voices. But the struggle is also an insular one between ultraconservative and moderate Islamists who have been at odds for generations over how deeply religion should permeate civil society.


“Political Islam faces a big challenge right now,” says Mohamed Shahawi, campaign manager for Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh, who was expelled from the Brotherhood when he defied the group by announcing his candidacy for president. “It’s like the decompression sickness that happens to deep-sea divers when they’re lifted too quickly to the surface.”

In Tunisia, the moderate Islamist Nahda party, which won big in recent elections, has promised to adhere to that country’s strong dedication to women’s rights. But Islamist leaders in Libya are pushing to reinstate polygamy after the late Moammar Kadafi had banned it for decades. The Brotherhood espouses equality and pluralism, but its hard-line elements talk of revoking Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, rejecting the idea that a woman or a Christian could ever be president, and eventually outlawing alcohol at beach resorts.

Abbas’ drumming out of the Brotherhood illustrated an ideological divide that had been growing for years: Should the organization, which has 600,000 members, limit itself to its social and religious roots, or expand further into politics and risk losing its reputation? Egyptians are pious, but many want a state with wider civil liberties than the Brotherhood supports.

Yet even young progressives like Abbas don’t easily disparage an organization that for years gave them identity and a sense of mission; even in his estrangement there is an echo of loyalty.

“The Brotherhood taught me a lot. I could never deny this,” Abbas said. “The Brotherhood has the trust on the street. It has been shaken in recent months in Cairo, but not in the rest of the country. They are respected because they kept to ethics and moral principles at a time the Mubarak regime was doing just the opposite.”

Founded by schoolteacher Hassan Banna in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood became the Arab world’s preeminent Islamic movement. Its history of bloodshed, including the attempted assassination of President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954, was articulated by Sayyid Qutb and his book “Milestones,” which inspired Islamic radicalism across the region. The Brotherhood renounced violence at home decades ago but it supports Hamas and other militant groups against Israel.


The Brotherhood’s popularity springs from its education, healthcare and religious programs that sustained poor and middle-class Egyptians at a time when Mubarak’s regime was failing them. Mubarak, playing to Western fears, portrayed the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, imprisoning and torturing thousands of its members. But the then-banned group’s political strength was apparent in 2005, when its members ran as independents and won 20% of seats in parliament.

Today, the Brotherhood is competing against more parties as it tries to polish its image even as it confronts a Western-leaning young generation and schisms from within.

“It’s a different environment now,” says Amr Darrag, a member of the Freedom and Justice Party who is running for parliament in the Cairo district of Imbaba. “We know we have to keep improving our message and tactics.”

An engineering professor at Cairo University, Darrag, who unlike most Brotherhood members does not wear a beard, sits in a living room of ornate carpets and gold-brocaded chairs. His flawless English mixes with the traffic drifting in from several floors below. He criticizes Brotherhood members such as Abbas as idealistic, impatient and drifting away from religion’s hold on society.

“They tend to be more enthusiastic and want to achieve their goals quickly,” he says. “But you have to calculate and predict consequences.”

Darrag speaks of equality and civil rights but he anchors them in Islam more than democracy. He, like most candidates or for that matter most Egyptians, speaks carefully about religion and democratic rights, sensitive that any suggestion of diminishing Islam could label one an apostate. This dynamic, which has nearly all political persuasions agreeing that sharia should guide the constitution, constricts open-ended political discourse and is manipulated by ultraconservatives, such as Salafis.


“What I’m concerned about is the Salafi groups who are worried that the Westernization of society has taken us further away from Islam,” he says. “I think they’ve overreacted.”

Darrag has his religious limits too, although he blends them with pragmatism. He says he would personally accept a female president but “from a political point of view it’s not a winner.... People in Egypt are still conservative. They wouldn’t be happy with a woman running their affairs. In Eastern culture, men are not as comfortable with this.”

He offers similar qualifications on Coptic Christians, who are fearful of growing sectarianism that has resulted in deaths, riots and burned churches. Darrag says Christians should enjoy the same rights as Muslims, but added that the Coptic Church’s support of Mubarak over the years was a “serious mistake” that is “unacceptable to many Muslims.” Millions of Muslims, however, also supported Mubarak.

Darrag prefers to talk about Egypt’s more immediate problems. The nation’s economy is sliding, tourism is down, infrastructure is decaying and unemployment is up. It’s little wonder that during the Eid holy festival early this month the Brotherhood delivered cheap beef and lamb as part of its campaign to win votes. Questions of Islam’s deeper role in society are being put off until later.

“We have a big chance, and if we don’t succeed it will be our problem,” Darrag says. “After four or five years we hope that then we can start to achieve our political agenda.”

Abbas is cranking up his political agenda now.

“Egypt needs a renaissance so that by 2030 we are one of the highest-income countries in the world,” he says. “We have to concentrate on programs that will lift the nation, not on ideology or religion.... If the young are elected, it will fulfill the dreams of the revolution. Despite our youth, what has happened over the recent months has given us political experience.”


But does 10 months of experience outsmart a Brotherhood that has been waiting decades for this opportunity?

“Tahrir Square changed the thinking of so many people,” says Abbas, reflecting on the most tumultuous year of his young life. “But I believe the voices of young Islamists are not strong enough yet to influence change. The old organizations still hold the power. But we need everyone to come together. We can’t exclude.”

The revolution altered the perspectives of many young, educated Islamists. They joined Christians, secularists and communists in Tahrir Square, widening their ideological boundaries. Abbas, who has a degree in business, wants a clearer separation of mosque and state, a prospect inconceivable to the Brotherhood and its more ultraconservative Islamic allies.

“It wasn’t a difficult decision to make when you believe in your own principles and ideas,” Abbas says of his estrangement from the Brotherhood. “Young people of Egypt need to find a new way of doing things. Even the Brotherhood will have to change. Everyone is closely watching Egypt. What’s happening here will not just change the Middle East but the world.”

It sounds pretty; spoken like a man wearing jeans and a rumpled, untucked button-down shirt. But sitting in his office with his cellphone next to a miniature Koran, Abbas is the embodiment of passion and inexperience. Moved by days of revolution, he is in the thicket of real-life politics, and one gets the sense that he is the future, but the future is not now.

His office door opens. There are other meetings, places to be, activists to plot with. Men across the street hurry to the mosque; slipping off shoes, washing their hands and feet, prostrating themselves to God in a call to prayer that has echoed through the centuries. Abbas knows that Islam and the power of its politics will shape Egypt for years to come.


“We’ve been looking for God for 7,000 years,” he says. “Egyptians will never give up on this.”

Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo bureau contributed to this report.